Communication

by Daniel Larison on March 3, 2009 · 7 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS.

Via Derbyshire, this Terry Teachout column makes an important observation that relates back to Derbyshire’s criticism of the influence of talk radio and my post on community:

The information age offers something for anybody: Survivor for simpletons, The Sopranos for sophisticates. The problem is that it offers nothing for everybody. By maximizing and facilitating cultural choice, information-age capitalism fused with identity politics to bring about the disintegration of the common middlebrow culture of my youth.

Technology has provided a greater diversity of media and allows for communicating vast amounts of information, which necessarily disperses and scatters attention in myriad directions, and the elevation of choice as one of our chief cultural goods (endorsed by almost everyone regardless of conventional political affiliations) has helped make sure that eclecticism and eccentricity tend to prevail.  Online fora, including blogs, are obviously also a product of this.  One of the things that we constantly hear in praise of talk radio hosts is that they are effective communicators.  This is ironic, given the almost reflexive disdain for community, both as a word and as a reality, that so many of these hosts seem to have.  Little remarked on from Limbaugh’s speech was his passing shot at the idea of community: “Remember the root word there is “commune”.”  Taken together with his glorification of individualism, his hostility toward possessing and being defined by something held in common seems clear.

Since the word communication refers to providing listeners with a share in the discussion, it implies at least a common language, which suggests that there is also a common culture whose values are being conveyed through that language.  These would be common cultural values formed in communities.  Yet at every turn, we see radio hosts make an idol out of choice and stress, as Limbaugh repeated, that “we are all individuals.”  More harmful than the quality of discussion in these broadcasts, talk radio shows in practice nurture the very forces of cultural dispersion and disintegration that make a broad common culture that much harder to cultivate and sustain.

It is not merely that these programs distract from creating middlebrow conservatism, as Derbyshire argued, but that they feed into the forces that eat away at whatever remains of a common culture while also creating their own sub-cultural ghetto to which conservatives seem only too inclined to retreat.  Following Lukacs’ observation about real, personal communication that I mention in the other post, it seems to me that the more conservatives define themselves in relation to these radio communications from fervent individualists the less likely they are going to be to engage in the kind of hard cultural work of building up their own communities and laying the foundations of the common culture they wish to pass on to their children.

Cross-posted at Eunomia

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Stewart March 3, 2009 at 12:54 pm

People are either Atoms (individuae) or Adams (personae). The truth is that we are born into a particular language and that alone is forgotten for the sake of individualism. Perhaps no man is an island, but even if that aphorism is thought about, islands are contiguous and share a common ground. Individualism, as much as collectivism, is alienating. Community exists within the tension between extremes. Yes, there are particular people, but there is also a general group. Communities are not formed by a social contract. No, we find ourselves in them before we can ever “consent” to anything. Communities are far more spiritual than material. A community represents a unio mystica whereas today’s conception of it treats it as a conglomeration of molecules: a unio molecula.

avatar Anonymous March 3, 2009 at 1:21 pm

It’s hard to not want to mention Anderson’s Imagined Communities in this context. The mass media of talk radio creates its particular community of listeners united via their common causes and common enemies. Of course, the analogy to Anderson is also not perfect. It’s easy to speculate, but a lot harder to come up with the correct answer.

Talk radio itself seems adept at generating a sense of ‘otherness’ for enemies both domestic and abroad. If we were to think of the most basic summary of Imagined Communities, the basis for nationalism, and thus a sense of community with citizens of the same country lies in creating the Other out of foreign powers. Contemporary partisan politics perhaps diminishes this by placing significant emphasis upon the enemy within the state, who could be any one of your neighbors or co-workers. Those demonized in the mass media likewise respond by Other-izing the community of listeners, who also occupy lateral positions in society.

Also, a compelling argument could be made that the breakdown in real, personal communications you cite from Lukacs could explain in some sense why, in a sort of Andersonian sense, the community we speculate would be generated in the listenership of talk radio would not translate into a genuine sense of community in the traditional sense we think of it.

avatar DarrenG March 3, 2009 at 3:37 pm

I’m not sure Limbaugh is a good example of the point Terry makes. Most dittoheads recognize they are part of a community, but Rush can’t allow himself that realization because it might imply that he would have some sort of duty or responsibility to the community, which appears to be an unthinkable outcome for him.

Terry’s point seems to be that communities are becoming smaller and more isolated, which I’m not sure I agree with, but even so it’s a very different point from Rush’s outright rejection of the concept of community.

avatar N. P. West March 3, 2009 at 7:37 pm

Here here! You also might want to have links to traditionalist organizations such as the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, the New Centurion Program, the Trinity Forum, the Wilbur Foundation, the National Humanities Institute, and the Edmund Burke Society. Also, there is a great resource on the Second Spring website (run under the auspices of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts where Russell Kirk’s son-in-law is president), the old Caelum et Terra website, and the old New Pantagruel website.

avatar Boz March 3, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Darren G.,
“Imagined Communities” might be one of the most over-cited books ever, but it’s pretty helpful here. You’ve put your finger on the nub of talk radio’s dubious achievement–devising new ways for us to “be together” without experiencing any genuine or intelligible obligation to each other. Frightening stuff.

avatar Empedocles March 4, 2009 at 12:46 pm

“Since the word communication refers to providing listeners with a share in the discussion, it implies at least a common language, which suggests that there is also a common culture whose values are being conveyed through that language. These would be common cultural values formed in communities. ”
The relation between language and community is very interesting one. Here is a post that goes into detail about how language supports social capital and community.
http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-diversity-destroys-social-capital.html

avatar Christopher March 4, 2009 at 2:23 pm

“Taken together with his glorification of individualism, his hostility toward possessing and being defined by something held in common seems clear.”

This is silly. As a traditional conservative, I have never really understood the extreme attitude “crunchy cons”, agrarians, and the like take toward Limbaugh and his followers. True, he is a libertarian (with a few conservative instincts), so naturally they emphasize the place of individual in community. However they recognize it. Economic freedom is not possible without a community of those who believe in economic freedom. The recognition of the personhood of the unborn is not possible without a community of people willing to go to bat politically for it (as Limbaugh regularly does). You folks sound like idealistic scolds who are willing to criticize your own before the nihilistic Hegelian Marxists who constitute the left. Take this sentence for example:

” it seems to me that the more conservatives define themselves in relation to these radio communications from fervent individualists the less likely they are going to be to engage in the kind of hard cultural work of building up their own communities and laying the foundations of the common culture they wish to pass on to their children.”

BAH! A haughty vocabulary does not make up for fundamentally misunderstanding those who have much in common with you…

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